In a world of Americanized Hollywood fairy tales, ‘Coco’ is refreshingly foreign

 By Dan Cava

November 22, 2017

Pixar’s Coco is an enjoyable adventure and a loving celebration of Mexican tradition. But unlike the studio’s many masterpieces, the movie’s focus on visual and cultural detail do not yield an equally breathtaking story; and the extraordinary settings through which we travel are often more interesting than journey itself.

Coco’s follows Miguel, a young boy whose family by way of an old grudge have banned all music from the household. Miguel becomes convinced that the only way to escape his family’s grip is to steal a guitar from mausoleum of his deceased musical idol, Mexican music star Ernesto De La Cruz. Contact with the guitar magically sends Miguel into the Land of The Dead, and Miguel’s only way home to the land of the living is to track down De La Cruz (who Miguel believes is his great-great-grandfather) and to receive the dead music star’s ancestral blessing.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The real magic of Coco is its marvelous depiction of Mexican culture and textures. Like last year’s Polynesia-based Moana, Coco’s story embeds a hero’s journey into the religious wisdom traditions of its given culture, in this case Mexico’s Catholicism-tinged ancestral spiritism. Using the Dia de Muertos holiday as a primary inspiration might sound risky for a kids movie (it translates to “The Day of the Dead”); but like many truly developed regional myths, Coco’s death-themed story leverages ritual and aesthetics to communicate mysterious aspects of life in a way children can digest. This is supremely valuable. The greatest gift Coco gives its audience (especially non-Mexicans like me) is the chance to observe and benefit from the profound mythic innovations Mexican culture offers.

The Land of Dead, where most of the movie takes place, is among the animation studio’s finest visual creations, an eternally nocturnal city awash in otherworldly pastel lights. Pixar’s landscapes tend to be gorgeous, even their lesser efforts (The Good Dinosaur has some of the best looking American vistas since John Ford), and Coco is an absolute fiesta for the eyes and ears. The afterlife metropolis is packed with skeletal citizens and benignly macabre decor. Flamenco guitars, mariachi horns, and warm accordions spice up Michael Giacchino’s score, written in collaboration with a slew of Latin-American contributors. In a world of Hollywood animation dominated until very recently by Americanized fairy tales, Coco’s tightly interlocked visual and sonic palettes are refreshingly foreign.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Coco’s story is deeply animated by Mexican folk tradition, and it deserves credit for that. But once it gets going, Miguel’s trek plays out much like a standard from-here-to-there Disney quest. For most of the film’s long middle section, the story progresses without deepening, from one episodic mini-adventure to the next. These mini-adventures bring their own self-contained mini-delights, like an escapade through a huge musical talent show that lands Miguel in the spotlight. Still, there’s something perfunctory at work here, like the throwaway crab-villain scene in Moana multiplied a few times over. A lovely, heartfelt ending delivers the old Pixar pathos that has so often elevated the company’s work; and while it’s not quite too little too late, it’s definitely a little and it’s definitely late.

It’s tempting to wonder if the filmmakers’ earnest desire to sensitively portray a non-caucasian culture shortchanged their eagerness to take the kind of character-based risks we’ve often seen from the makers of emotionally complex stories like Up and Inside Out. Because the movie comes to rely so heavily on the complicated internal logic of Mexican ancestral traditions, the characters have to spend a lot of their dialogue keeping younger viewers oriented. (The movie’s English screenplay is liberally sprinkled with snippets of Spanish, but it’s the stuff we all remember from elementary school, not the idiosyncratic phrasing one would find on the Mexican streets.) Admittedly, Coco sets out a difficult task for itself, and should be appreciated accordingly. But the blend of cultural information, story, character, and humor is never quite right.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Coco dips its toe into the caricature-over-character trap that Pixar’s masterpieces have avoided. With one or two notable but plot-dependent exceptions, the people in Coco tend to be little more than they initially appear to be. Miguel is a good kid, but outside of the intense love of music that drives him through the story, he’s not a very interesting one. Like all of the characters in Coco he is missing that sense of having a life outside of the immediate needs of the story. Cartoon or not, we still need characters who feel alive, even if in this story they are…you know…technically dead.

The humor lacks a sense of life: more silly than funny, emanating from the surfaces of the world but not quite from the specificity of the characters. Every animated movie doesn’t need to be hilarious, but a gag attempted and a gag accomplished are two different things. Because the filmmakers can’t seem to resist them, we quickly learn the difference between a “good” skeleton-falling-apart joke, and “another” skeleton-falling-apart joke. There are far more of the latter.

Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Maybe if Coco did not have to appeal to the broadest possible audience, it would have been liberated to be the kind of well rounded delight Pixar is capable of. Yes, this is a kids movie, and yes, it’s gorgeous and never quite boring, and yes, the progressive in me recognizes the quiet act of love that valuing Mexican culture represents in the era of Trump. And yet despite all this, the movie-lover in me knows a decent movie from a great one.

Bolstered by a rich Mexican setting, Coco’s beautiful sights and sounds are enough to make this worth a look for audiences of all ages. The movie is never less than watchable, and when the emotions finally arrive in the end, they’re wonderful. But ultimately, Coco is more special on the outside than the inside.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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